Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Rare flowering plant finds safe haven in southern Ohio

Sullivant's coolwort was discovered in 1839 in Highland County

July 29, 2018

Jim McCormac

In 1795, Lucas Sullivant was contracted by the Commonwealth of Virginia to survey land along the Scioto River in what’s now Franklin County and vicinity. Following that task, he took a hiatus in Kentucky but returned in 1797 and platted out Franklinton.Sullivant’s settlement would become Columbus, and his name is immortalized by the busy West Side avenue that bears his name.
Lucas and his wife Sarah had the first of their four children on Jan. 15, 1803 — just a month before President Thomas Jefferson signed papers recognizing Ohio’s constitution and boundaries. Their first child was William Starling Sullivant, and he would go on to achieve great things in the natural sciences.

William was born into a still wild frontier, at a time when new species of plants regularly turned up. He turned into quite the botanist, avidly exploring various habitats around his central Ohio home.

In the summer of 1839 while visiting Highland County — quite the excursion back then — Sullivant explored massive limestone cliffs overlooking the Paint Creek Valley. There he met with a delicate little plant unknown to him, growing in fissures high on the rock faces.
Sullivant’s mystery plant was new to science. It would be dubbed Sullivantia sullivantii, named in his honor by the great botanist Asa Gray in 1840. Today, the plant is often referred to by a common name, Sullivant’s coolwort. It is only known from a smattering of sites in nine states.

The place where a plant or animal is first discovered is called a “type locality,” and the expansion of the human population has not been kind to most type localities in the eastern United States. The cliffs where Sullivant discovered his coolwort were flooded in 1974 following completion of the Paint Creek Lake dam.

I recently visited an amazing place, the Highlands Nature Sanctuary in eastern Highland County. It is owned by the Arc of Appalachia, a private conservation organization that has thus far protected nearly 6,000 acres of natural areas. Highlands Nature Sanctuary is a crown jewel among the Arc’s 18 preserves.

Rocky Fork Gorge forms the spectacular centerpiece of Highlands Nature Sanctuary, and its sheer cliffs support thriving populations of Sullivant’s coolwort. This little saxifrage is finicky. It grows only where seepages keep the shaded rock faces in a state of constant moisture.

Delicate spikes bearing tiny white flowers rise a few inches above glossy leaves. In places, the coolwort was so plentiful as to form hanging gardens on the otherwise barren rocky walls.

The Highlands Nature Sanctuary is only a mile from the site of Sullivant’s original discovery. I’m sure Sullivant would be pleased to know that the Arc of Appalachia is safeguarding his plant. After all, he was so smitten with the coolwort that its likeness was etched into his wife Eliza’s grave marker, in Green Lawn Cemetery on Columbus’s South Side.

Visitors are welcome at Highlands Nature Sanctuary. It’s a trip you’ll not regret. To learn more, visit: arcofappalachia.org.

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

The Gannets of Bonaventure Island

The village of Percé, on Québec's Gaspé Peninsula, as seen from the mountains above town. The large rock monolith arising from the Gulf of St. Lawrence, just right of the largest spruce tree, is Percé Rock. Laying low on the horizon, shrouded in fog, is Bonaventure Island. Tens of thousands of seabirds nest on these massive rocks, most notably enormous numbers of northern gannets.

To get to Bonaventure Island, one takes a boat that leaves on multiple times each day from the main pier in Percé. It isn't a long ride, but you'll see scores of birds, a number of seals (harbor and gray), and possibly minke whales. The birds steal the show, though. Fast-flying squadrons of alcids constantly rocket past: razorbills, common murres, and black guillemots. Get lucky and you might see one of the few Atlantic puffins that breeds on Bonaventure. Scads of black-legged kittiwakes waft by, and occasionally flocks of large chunky common eiders pass by low over the waves. Huge great black-backed gulls float about, mixed with herring gulls.

But most of the tourists are here for one thing: northern gannets. These huge seabirds (6 foot wingspan! 7 lbs!) can't be missed. You'll see lots from the pier while awaiting the boat. And somewhere on the cruise to the island, a feeding swarm will likely be encountered. When gannets locate a school of fish near the surface, the frenzy commences. Gannets are plunge-divers, dropping from the heights like air to water torpedoes, and entering the drink with great splashes. At times, many birds are literally bombing the ocean like feathered kamikazes. As interesting as all this is, visitors have yet to see anything, gannet-wise.

The photos in this post were made on July 1 - one of two trips that I made to Bonaventure Island. I saw so many interesting plants and other things on the island, but spent nearly all available time with the gannets on the inaugural trip, that I had to go back. In addition to Bonaventure Island, there is much to see in this part of Québec. The Gulf of St. Lawrence is home to many whales - mostly humpbacks and minkes at this season - and they're easy to see from land. Seals can be spotted hauled out on rocks anywhere. Birds galore. Stunning scenery at every turn and angle. And interesting culture. The Gaspé is France in North America. French is the first language, although most natives know enough English to communicate with Englishmen such as myself.

I hope to get back here soon, and Debbie DiCarlo (my partner in photo workshops) and I are plotting ways to run a trip up here, maybe next year. HERE IS a link to our current schedule, with reports from previous workshops. If you would like to be added to our email newsletter list, send Debbie an email - her contact info is RIGHT HERE. If we do the Gaspé trip, it'll be a hyper-productive one, to a place few Americans apparently visit. I saw probably less than a dozen license plates from the States my entire time up there, and met no other Americans while out and about. And I was out and about a lot.

Anyway, after exiting the boat on Bonaventure Island, guests are welcomed by staff of the National Park Service, and given an informative briefing on the island. After paying a small fee ($8.50) it's off to the trails. While there are miles of trails on the island, most people take the direct overland route - about 1/2 mile one way - to the gannet colony on the far side of the island. The walk is interesting, mostly through spruce woods populated with many breeding songbirds. Fox sparrows, yellow-bellied flycatchers, and many species of warblers can be found. If you're lucky, maybe even a boreal chickadee.

But the highlight is yet to come. Before even exiting the woods, you'll hear a strange racket ahead which increases as you move forward. Then comes the smell. And moments later, one pops out into an opening near the island's sea cliffs, and there they are!

Scores of nesting gannets, seemingly arranged geometrically. Over 50,000 nesting pairs are present, and the sight of this many birds in such close proximity is breathtaking. Your senses of sight, smell, and hearing are nearly overpowered.

There is a carefully managed viewing area at this spot - a grassy opening hemmed in by a simple rope fence. There is even a concession stand! The gannets could care less about our presence, and the closest nests are within a few feet of the fence. On several occasions, I was startled by gannets who had snuck under the fence to our side, and stood there curiously regarding me from feet away. At one point, I took a short trail through the woods to another viewing spot, and who should come marching down the trail headed my way? A gannet, in the woods! He and I had a brief Mexican standoff, I moved to the side of the path, and he sidled by two feet away.

All of this should make for simple photography, one would think, but such is not necessarily the case. So many birds are in such close proximity that isolating individuals can be tough, and one must be vigilant about exposing the snowy-white birds correctly. It is easy to overexpose them. Nonetheless, I learned a ton about how to approach Bonaventure Island gannet photography during my six hours spent with the birds on this visit.

Gannet, in portraiture. Large lenses are really not essential here, although I lugged my tripod and Canon 500mm f/4 II along on Trip #1. And am glad that I did. That big lens focuses down to 7.5 feet and allowed me to make sharp "macro" images such as above, especially when rigged with a 12mm extension tube. It also does a superb job of creating bokeh; melting the background away. Those are all gannets in the backdrop of this photo, and they aren't very far away from my subject. A 16-35mm wide-angle lens covered other bases, and those may have been the only lenses I used. Any sort of wide-angle, and larger zoom lens should cover you here. Even a good iPhone will produce rafts of great images!

One of the myriad reasons that kept me at the colony all day - I was on the first boat at 9 am, and departed on the last, at 5 pm) was the fascinating behavior of the gannets. Here, a pair engages in "mutual fencing", a display in which the male and female stand breast to breast and rapidly waggle their bills back and forth, clacking them together in the process. This is one way that birds reestablish pair bonds upon uniting at the nest site after a long winter at sea.

Gannets were frequently returning from the Gulf with beakfuls of "seaweed", various kelp, I imagine. They use it for the simple nest, and in a ritualized greeting in which the harvester presents his mate with the gift.

While graceful - supremely so! on the wing, the same cannot be said of land-bound gannets. Things start to get a bit dicey when one of the massive boobies nears the ground and preps for a landing. The birds in the immediate vicinity seem to get a bit edgy, perhaps wondering if they'll get mowed down if things go south with their comrade's landing. Here's a bird crashing and burning upon entry to terra firma. But not for long - he jumped right back to his feet and set off to locate his own nest, which is quite a feat in and of itself.

A just alit gannet, bearing a gift of plants, stands in seeming confusion. He was using whatever cues it is that gannets use to ferret out his nest among the mob. I noticed that it doesn't take them long to find the nest, even though a returning bird may have landed 20 or more feet away. Getting there is the challenge. The nests are tightly spaced and nesting gannets DO NOT like interlopers passing through their turf. The returnee faces a gauntlet of clacking swordlike bills and mewls of protest as it stumble-runs through the mob. Once back in its tiny space, all is well and peaceful again.
As always, click the photo to enlarge

This is the end game of all this chaos. Baby gannets! Here's a few day old chick peeking from under the 7 lb. safety blanket of an adult. The little ones are carefully tended by their parents, and regularly fed regurgitated fishy slop. In fact, moments before I took this photo, the adult released a load of nasty-looking gruel nearly on top of the little guy, who immediately proceeded to lap it up.

Gannets have but one chick, and if all goes well for the little fellow in this image, it'll waddle to the nearby sea cliffs in about 12 weeks, and jump/flap/glide into the sea. Still without fully developed wing muscles, the juvenile embarks on an incredible journey. Fully independent from the adults at this point, the young gannet begins swimming - SWIMMING! - out to sea. For some unknown period of time, until it develops the power of flight, the juveniles can only disperse by swimming. Chicks making it to adulthood can live a long time. The oldest known gannet was about 21 years of age.

There are only six gannet colonies in North America - three in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and three off the coast of Newfoundland in the North Atlantic. Fortunately they're doing well, with steady population increases at all colonies in recent decades. Hopefully that's a trend that will continue.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Remember, dragonfly records needed!

A male eastern pondhawk, Erythemis simplicicollis, rests on a lilypad in a Logan County, Ohio wetland, last Tuesday. This common, beautiful dragonfly is found in wetlands statewide.

As I've written about before, the Ohio Dragonfly Survey is in full swing. This project, in its second year (of three years), is designed to provide the most comprehensive data on Ohio's dragonflies and damselflies ever assembled. We welcome ALL records of ANY dragonfly or damselfly, including very common species such as the pondhawk above.

The survey is a great way to put your digital photography skills to work for science. Dragonflies make for outstanding photo subjects, so they're a lot of fun to shoot. As an increasing number of people use cameras, especially to shoot natural history subjects, the potential pool of contributors to the Ohio Dragonfly Survey is enormous. Indeed, we've already received tens of thousands of photographic records, and hope to add scores of thousands more before it's all said and done.

A gorgeous male twelve-spotted skimmer, Libellula pulchella (pulchella literally means "beautiful" in Latin), tees up on a complementary spiked blazing-star, Liatris spicata, yesterday in Champaign County.

The data processing power of iNaturalist makes the curation of thousands of dragonfly records a snap. All that is required is an identifiable photo - we're not after art here - and a few simple data points about the record. If your camera has built-in GPS, and more them do all the time, iNaturalist will automatically grab that info when you upload the photo. The Ohio Dragonfly Survey site has instructions on how to interface with iNaturalist. It's extremely easy to use.

A female elfin skimmer, Nannothemis bella, rests atop a rare plant, walking spikerush, Eleocharis rostellata. The dragonfly is even rarer and is listed as a state-endangered species in Ohio. I shot this image and the next yesterday at Cedar Bog in Champaign County.

The survey is especially interested in records of rarities, as a major goal is to document species that occupy rare habitats, or may be increasing or decreasing significantly. Such as the golden-winged skimmer that I recently posted, RIGHT HERE.

Here's the male elfin skimmer, which looks nothing like the female. A fun challenge of dragon and damsel identification is that many species are sexually dimorphic - females and males look different. Fortunately, even an avid surveyor will likely only encounter a hundred or so species of Odonates (dragonflies and damselflies) in a season, and most of us, far fewer. Learning these fascinating insects is certainly not an insurmountable task.

So, if you're out shooting nature, try turning your lenses to the dragons when opportunities arise. Your records will be important contributions to one of our largest citizen scientist projects to date. And as all damselflies and dragonflies are wetland-dependent at some point in their life cycle - always as larvae - their status and distribution tells us much about the condition of our wetlands and waterways.

Again, GO HERE for comprehensive information about the Ohio Dragonfly Survey.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Golden-winged Skimmer in Ohio

Hard to keep current with the blog of late, due to travels and too many commitments. I'm not wanting for subject matter, though - many of my excursions, if not specifically photographic in nature, at least allow for some pictorial exploration.

Last Saturday involved work and play. Debbie DiCarlo and I were scouting a few spots in advance of our "Prairies at their Peak" photo workshop the following day, and stopped by a wonderful fen in west-central Ohio to see how things looked. Of course, we had cameras in tow and were creating imagery along the way.

ASIDE: The workshop mentioned above was full with twelve people, and we had a great time. Lots of images of everything from tiny macro insects to sweeping prairie landscapes. Scores of great images were made, and I think we all advanced our knowledge of picture-taking, and natural history. Our next workshop will immerse the group into a deluge of biodiversity and fascinating subjects, as we'll be visiting southern Ohio's Shawnee Forest and vicinity. That'll be August 31 - September 2, and we can take a few more participants. All of the details are RIGHT HERE.

Anyway, while scanning a fen meadow on last Saturday's scouting trip, I spotted a gorgeous golden dragonfly shoot past. I was mostly focusing on dragonflies at that point of our field trip, as I'm trying to photo-document as many damselflies and dragonflies as possible for the Ohio Dragonfly Survey. I knew the golden insect was special, and began stalking it. It was, if my suspicion was correct, a dragonfly I had only seen once before in Ohio, when Rick Nirschl found the first state record in Lucas County in the summer of 2008. That was such a notable find that I met Rick at the site specifically to see the beasts (he found a few).

After a bit of watching and waiting, the animal finally alit on a stalk of prairie-dock, allowing me this documentary shot. Yes! A golden-winged skimmer, Libellula auripennis! This is a showy species of the southern and eastern states, with few but an ever-increasing number of midwestern records.

Following Nirschl's inaugural Ohio discovery, there were three other documented records, the most recent of which was last year during the Ohio Odonata Society's annual conference, appropriately enough. Unless I'm missing something, this record would make Ohio's fourth record of golden-winged skimmer, but I'll wager there will be plenty more in the coming years.

It was hot and sunny when I found the skimmer, so the bug was quite active and quick to flee. Nonetheless, he - it is a male - eventually allowed me this one nice pose, and I took advantage. Golden-winged skimmers are striking insects due to their large size and gorgeous golden-orange coloration, and also quite distinctive. If you see one, please let me know, or better yet, report it to the aforementioned Ohio Dragonfly Survey. One of our main goals with that three year project (2017 thru 2019) is to document shifts in dragonfly populations.

Finally, a note about dragonfly photography. There are many ways to photographically skin a dragonfly, or damselfly, and most any camera can get an identifiable shot if the shooter can get close enough (AND the species is identifiable in a photo). But dedicated macro lenses often work best, and my two favorite dragonfly lenses have long been Canon's superb 100mm f/2.8 macro lens, and the quirky but crazy sharp Canon 180mm f/3.5 macro lens. In a perfect world, I would use the 100mm for small stuff like bluets, forktails, and spreadwings, and the 180mm for larger dragonflies. The latter is a telephoto macro lens that allows the user to be about twice as far away as is necessary with the 100mm lens. Keeping distance from the subject is helpful as dragonflies can be quick to flee in the face of a perceived threat.

But recently I've hit on a new favorite dragonfly lens rig, usually mated to my Canon 5D IV. It is the aging but still amazing Canon 300mm f/4, with image stabilization. I got this lens used a while back, and didn't have to pay a lot for it. It's good for lots of things, but when I coupled it with a 12mm extension tube and turned it to dragonflies, I realized it was an excellent dragon-slayer indeed. The 300mm works well on even tiny damselflies, but really shines with the larger dragonflies. Because of its long focal length, I can often remain well back from the subject and am thus more unlikely to flush it. This lens/camera combo is what allowed me to photo-document the subject of this post.

Monday, July 9, 2018

The Gaspe Peninsula of Quebec

A gorgeous sunset paints the skies over the Chic-Choc Mountains of Quebec's Gaspe Peninsula.

I just returned from a long-awaited trip to the Gaspe Peninsula of Quebec, one of the most scenic areas in the northeastern maritime region of southern Canada and the northeastern U.S. There were stops in the Adirondacks of upstate New York along the way, and all told it was two weeks on the road.

Following is a random smattering of photos from the trip. I have MUCH more, and hope to share some other images and information about certain locations later. These images were lifted from posts I made to Facebook during the trip - if you're on Facebook (and who isn't?), you can follow me HERE.

The cold gravelly shores of the Gaspe Peninsula, which is surrounded on three sides by the icy waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, hosts some interesting plants. This one is common: silverweed, Argentina anserina.

I was excited to get the opportunity to photograph the common ringlet, Coenonympha tullia, a small butterfly of open habitats. Its caterpillars feed on various grasses and rushes.

A pair of black-legged kittiwakes greet each other on a ledge high on a sea cliff in Forillon National Park. The male, presumably, had just returned with a bill full of kelp for use in the nest. Kittiwakes are abundant in this region.

Porcupines are quite common, and this one was rooting about along a roadside at dusk. "Porkies" are fairly tame and sometimes allow close approach. I would advise not approaching too closely, though.

A quintet of harbor seals, hauled out on rocks along the Gulf of St. Lawrence. This species, and to a lesser extent the gray seal, are common and easily found along the shoreline of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Here's a juvenile harbor seal, a rather cute little beast. His rock and nearby ones sported about two dozen seals when I made this image.

This is a prostrate beach-dwelling bluebell, believe it or not. It's oysterplant, Mertensia maritima, which is in the same genus as our familiar Virginia bluebells of rich woodlands.

The flowers of oysterplant reveal its alliance with other bluebells. This one is a cold-hardy species of northern climes, barely reaching as far south as the northernmost states of the northeast maritime region.

Another classic plant of northern latitudes, the fireweed, Chamaenerion angustifolium. It commenced blooming during my visit, but was not yet in full swing.

A Quebec meadow full of fireweed, and it's not even peak yet. Large stands of this plant often figure prominently in northern landscape photographs.

A moose! I saw three of the beasts, all at dusk as is to be expected. Poor light prevented excellent images, but it's always exciting to see these massive beasts, photos or not.

Sea cliffs in the Gaspe region support large colonies of nesting seabirds, including this razorbill. I visited the enormous northern gannet colony on Bonaventure Island, and hope to share a piece specifically about that. But the razorbills are my favorite of the alcids, and were plentiful.

I'll be back with more later.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Common Merganser, with babies

A hen common merganser, Mergus merganser, steams along with eleven babies in tow. The little ones cling tightly to her, and as many as possible will clamber aboard her back.

I've been up on the Gaspe Peninsula of Quebec, and it's been quite an adventure. Scores of photos of lots of interesting flora and fauna, and beautiful landscapes. More to follow.